Bulgaria is one of my favorite European destinations — it has pretty much everything: great food and wine, skiing, beaches, nightlife, ancient ruins, monasteries, and plenty of medieval cobblestone towns. The dollar goes a long way and it’s not as slammed with tourists as some other spots in Europe — altogether, it’s the perfect European vacation destination!
Three churches I recommend: At the heart of Sofia is the massive Bulgarian Orthodox Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral – which was started in 1882 and completed in 1924. It’s an impressive architectural feat and its well worth visiting to see its sprawling interior and its decorated alcoves. If you’d like to continue the church tour of Sofia, walk across the plaza to the adjacent St. Sophia Church— a Byzantine construction dating back to the 6th century. While it’s more understated than the Nevski Cathedral, its ancient brick architecture, ruins and underground crypt make it quite unique. Walking through the Pushkin Park, you’ll come to the smaller, but impressive Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiski Russian Orthodox church dating to 1914. The park also has a small open air antique market.
That part of town also has plenty of museums (art, history, etc). If you’d like to catch a show in town, the National Opera and Ballet and the National Theater are nearby — and those buildings themselves are worth seeing. Heading southwest, you’ll encounter the old city with plenty of restaurants and cafes.
For good local fare, I recommend the cozy, Balkanesque Hadjidranga tavern. The Shopka salad is always a great choice (tomato, cucumber, onion, and feta), and other dishes include grilled meat platters and where you can have casserole dishes smothered in melted cheese. Don’t miss the delicious Mavrud wine – a dry red Bulgarian varietal. You can get high-end bottles at restaurants or specialty shops, or (on the other end of the spectrum) you can find it in unmarked plastic bottles at corner shops for 1-2 dollars– either way, it’s all quite good!
For a day trip I highly recommend the Rila Monastery — a gorgeous 10th-century Orthodox monastery with elaborate fresco paintings on the exterior and interior. It’s about two hours south of Sofia nestled in a scenic gorge. It was founded by St. John of Rila the Wonderworker — apparently he used this location as an ideal place to be secluded from people. (I wonder how he would feel about it becoming a major tourist attraction : ) The best way to get there is with a rental car (I learned the hard way and did that for my second visit). Otherwise, you can take a local bus to Blagoevgrad, then a smaller bus to the town of Rila, and from there a small van takes trips to the monastery. I did that combination the first time and it’s quite an ordeal — so if you’re going to take public transportation, perhaps check with your hotel to see if the process has been simplified over the years.
Pro tip: If you take a public bus to the monastery, just make sure to find out what time the last bus returns for each stop of the way back (ie., the last departure from the monastery to Rila town, Rila town to Blagoevgrad, and Blagoevgrad to Sofia). My dad and I learned that the hard way and had to hitchhike back to Blagoevgrad, hang out at the train tracks until a train dropped off passengers, and pay a conductor to let us on a train back to Sofia (even though they weren’t supposed to pick anyone up). Live and learn : )
While Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria, it feels very manageable– and is a must-see ancient city in south-central Bulgaria dating back to the 6th Century BC. One of Plovdiv’s main attractions is the ancient Roman Theater of Philippopolis (Plovdiv’s ancient name), which is well-preserved / restored and still hosts events today. There are plenty of other Roman ruins scattered around town including at the Roman Forum, Odeon of Philippopolis, and mosaics of the Great Basilica, as well as the Eastern Gate, which has a fairly-well preserved Roman road. If you’re willing to make the climb, the nearby Danov Hill offers nice views over the city.
The Ethnographic Museum provides an interesting cultural overview, and don’t miss the ornately decorated traditional houses such as Balabanov’s House or the Hindliyan House Museum. Also, stop by the Church of St. Constantine and Helena, with its impressive icons. It was originally built on top of a Christian sanctuary dating back to the 4th century but rebuilt in 1832 after it was destroyed.
While exploring the Old City, be sure to take note of the impressive brick-and-stone architecture. If you get up early, you can avoid the crowds and take some great photos! As you might expect, there are plenty of local shops selling Bulgarian handicrafts. As Bulgaria is famous for its roses, several vendors sell rose-scented products (oils, hand-cremes, etc.) — they were a hit when I brought some back for Mrs. Yakpacker!
Pro Tip: wear good shoes when exploring Plovdiv’s old city, as some streets contain rough, wide-set cobblestones that can wear you out after a day of walking!
Veliko Tarnovo is another city I recommend visiting, in north-central Bulgaria. It was the seat of the second Bulgarian Kingdom and has a medieval mountain town feeling. It’s situated on a ridge along a river bend, offering some impressive scenery of the nearby valleys. I stayed in the Hotel Kiev, which was a great value and centrally-located. For $5 extra, we took a room with the castle view… the castle was a ways off in the distance, but it was probably worth it : )
The key attraction is the Tsarevets Fortress, dating back to 1185. One key feature includes the execution rock, a large stone outcrop from which Tsar Theodore Svetoslav pushed traitors in 1300.
After visiting the castle, I enjoyed walking around the old city, soaking up the sights and eating traditional fare. I recommend trying the meatballs on offer at various restaurants around town — try Shtastliveca. Also, if you stop by the Samovodska Charshia Ethnographic Complex, it shows cultural traditions from various periods of the city’s history. I recommend trying the Turkish coffee cooked over heated sand, a tradition dating back to the Ottoman times.
Skiing in Bansko
If you’re into skiing, I highly recommend checking out Bankso — an excellent ski resort about two hours south of Sofia. The big name hotel in town is the Regnum, but there are plenty of great boutique hotels throughout town, as well. The ski gondola takes you up the mountain to the base, and there are plenty of slopes for all skill levels. At the end of the day, rather than taking the gondola back down, there’s a long, gradual ski road that leads into town, with a couple stands along the way serving mulled wine. Happy End is a lively bar at the end of the ski road that serves as a natural apres ski! There are many fabulous restaurants all throughout town, and really good nightlife, as well!
Burgas / Nessebar / Sunny Beach
Eastern Bulgaria has some incredible beaches and reasonably-priced beachfront resorts on the Black Sea. While Burgas and Sunny Beach are popular for sunbathers, I also strongly recommend visiting the peninsula town of Nessebar, which is easy to reach via bus from Burgas. Every square inch of the Nessebar peninsula is covered in Byzantine-era ruins. It has ruins of old churches (St. Sophia and Church of Christ Pantokrator being the most famous), homes, and bathhouses. There’s also excellent seafood on offer, naturally.
Something for Next Time: High on my list for Bulgaria is to visit the Khadzhi Dimitur — a massive, UFO-shaped abandoned Communist headquarters out in the middle of nowhere. It looks amazing!